The first blog of 2019 comes from Peter Bareau, who has researched the life of his grandfather, Louis Bareau. Louis, a widower, came to England from Antwerp in 1914 with his son Paul (Peter’s father) and daughter Simone. Unlike most Belgian refugees, they stayed on after the war was over. Paul and Simone both married English people and had families.
The following is an extract from a book that Peter has written on his family history, and describes their journey from Antwerp to England including the recollections of Paul:
From an early stage, Belgian refugees began pouring into France, Holland and England. The route to England was mainly via Ostend to Folkestone, until Ostend, too, fell to the German army on October 15th. thereafter, the routes from Boulogne and Rotterdam remained open, but subject to action by German U-boats.
Our best guess is that for a number of good reasons, possibly including Louis’ fear of enforced enlistment in the German army, the little Bareau family left Antwerp towards the end of August or in September. Paul’s reference to ‘the very last boat’ might imply even later, but with the tumult in Ostend before the Germans took it, every boat must have seemed ‘the last’. To leave Antwerp they must have walked over one of the two bailey bridges set up over the Scheldt by Belgian engineers to facilitate escape from the city to the west. In 1996 on his 95th birthday Paul was questioned by his grand-daughter, Kate, armed with a tape recorder:
Paul: my father belonged to a firm which dealt with commodities from the colonies – gum, rubber, ivory. A good deal of his trade was with England, so he got to know a good many friends in London, and some very good personal friends. When the Germans overcame the first forts in Belgium near Liège near the frontier and started moving towards Antwerp, my father decided that it would be a good thing to escape to England. My mother had died when I was 8. The whole family was just my father, a sister called Simone and myself.
We escaped one morning, I remember it very well. We crossed the river, the Scheldt, and then got onto a milk cart which had brought milk from Ghent and we got to a lovely town called Bruges. It was while sleeping there in a hotel that we heard the British army coming through. They’d come from England and landed at Ostend and they were going to Antwerp to try to save it.
Folkestone was one of only two English ports (Tilbury was the other) open for the Belgian refugees arrived in Folkestone every day from Boulogne, Ostend, Flushing and Dieppe. The Folkestone Herald commented ‘the town is thronged with Belgians. This week we are positively a Continental town’. The locals got together to receive, welcome, interpret, find lodging, help with exchange of money, provide financial assistance, prepare thousands of meals, donate clothes etc. Committees were formed and churches, schools, local organisations and volunteers mobilised.
As the boats arrived a company of ladies met the refugees with food and hot drinks. Signor Alfredo Franzoni, an Italian-born artist married to a Belgian, who had painted a number of set pieces in Belgium, was amongst the refugees. In gratitude, he presented the town with a painting entitled The Landing of the Belgian Refugees, now restored and hanging in the reception area at the Town Hall.
Kate: How much had you taken with you? How much were you carrying with you?
Paul: As much as we could carry. We must have had three large cases. I had enough clothes, but above all my father had been wise enough to go to his bank and take out in gold coins as much money as he could manage to carry. So when we got to Ostend we were able to get into the last boat leaving for England – the very last boat. The British people had organized a reception for Belgian refugees coming over.
Kate: Where was that?
Paul: We came from Ostend and landed in Folkestone and we were immediately taken to a boarding house in Folkestone.
Kate: How did you find somewhere to live?
Paul: While we were in that boarding house in Folkestone our father left us there and went up to London to meet his commercial friends. They were very kind. They said to him ‘we will readily take you and your family into our home’. They lived in Streatham. I remember the journey by train to London and arriving in Streatham. My father immediately started working for this friend of his, Mr Morgan, earning some money.
In a short piece recorded for the Imperial War Museum, now available in a podcast with the unmistakable tones of Paul Bareau, he said: ‘We left Belgium in dejection and we arrived in England and suddenly found ourselves heroes, the brave little Belgians. I remember being welcomed in Folkestone by what must have been the chairman of the reception committee, a large woman who embraced my sister and myself. And this for me epitomised the welcome which we received then, and which we were to receive for months and months afterwards. We stayed with friends of my father and I can’t speak enough of the kindness which I received in England’.
Simone said her first memory of England was sitting on the beach at Folkestone, being taught English by a priest pointing things out to her.
If you would like to contact Peter about his research, or to request a copy of his book where you can continue to read his family’s story, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.